Sometimes you just have to challenge a guy like Kurt Busch and watch him respond. That's what team owner Jack Roush did a couple years ago when Busch was having problems with his temper. Busch has since responded by winning more than a half dozen races.
This weekend, Busch has got something else challenging him: Richmond International Raceway. The Las Vegas native has won four times at Bristol Motor Speedway and once at Martinsville Raceway, giving him five short track victories for his resume.
At these bull rings, where tempers flare, the once short-fused Busch has used patience and confidence to drive into Victory Lane. Roush believes this weekend Busch can do it again.
"Kurt has learned things that I think he would admit that he probably didn't know -- that have been useful to him about the business that we're in and how he needs to manage Kurt, so that Kurt can be in control of all his faculties and be able to take advantage of the opportunities there," Roush said. "There are many great challenges in this business and Kurt has matured greatly."
Part of the maturation process has been learning to do what it takes to perform over a 36-race period. Over the last two seasons, Busch has had hot starts only to be doomed by mid-season slumps. Here, 10 races into the year, Busch has fallen from his perch atop the standings five weeks ago to a slot at fifth after two straight races of finishing outside the top 20.
Normally, that's not a concern for most teams. For the No. 97 Ford bunch, though, they're just hoping to stave off yet another slump. This is their mindset heading to Richmond, which has not always been too kind to Busch.
"We haven't had finishes at this track like we wanted," crew chief Jimmy Fennig said. But he added that there's reason to believe things might change this time around. "We went ahead and switched over one of our cars to use for this track. It's a car that Kurt has done well with in the past at Pocono and that he won the pole and the race with in Miami awhile back -- car #52. We brought it up to Richmond to test last week, and we feel pretty good about what we've got."
The question is how the new car will respond to what is essentially a new racetrack. Richmond has been repaved, changing the dynamics of the raceway and making it a lot faster. Although many teams had tested there before heading to Richmond, no one is still sure about what to expect. Well, outside of one thing:
"No doubt there will be a track record set when we come back to qualify," Busch said. "It's very fast. It's like a small Texas."
Turned out Busch was right. Rookie Brian Vickers nabbed the pole with a track record lap on Friday as 29 cars broke the previous mark. Busch didn't fare as well as he'll start 31st. But that start doesn't matter much. At Richmond, things tend to shuffle, and certainly this year drivers expect the same.
The main challenge will be to adapt to the racetrack quickly. And when it comes to that, Busch is one of the best. After only one season in the Truck Series, racing on only a handful of the tracks the Cup drivers do, Busch jumped into a Cup car.
"It would have been great to run two seasons in the Busch Series to understand all of the racetracks because I was running on race tracks that I had never seen before," he said. "From one year in the Southwest Tour to Trucks and then to Nextel Cup and then to new tracks like Chicago and Kansas. I mean, racetracks I had never seen before.
"And then once you get to learn the drivers and once you get to learn the means of success, which I had before but not at this level, that became a whole new ball of wax. That's probably where I struggled was understanding the bigger picture and what a driver has to do as a role model, as a team leader and as an individual within this rank."
But he figured it out, and he did it fast. He struggled to learn the lay of the land in 2001, his rookie season. Then he came back and won five times the next year. Last year, he added four more wins. This year, he's only got one -- but he has his sights set on one more: Richmond, where he hopes to add another short track trophy to his case.
"I enjoy the short tracks," he said earlier this year. "I'll race anywhere, wherever they tell us, but I really do enjoy the short tracks and sometimes it brings out the best in me."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.